Posts Tagged ‘Willpower’

Willpower and Fun: a win-win combination

December 12, 2010

In a few weeks it will be January, and at least half the U.S. adult population will be groaning about how much they overdid the holiday spirit and how much they need to suffer to get back in shape. It doesn’t have to be that way.  Exercising willpower and self-control now can put you way ahead of the game later.  But how to do this and still have fun is the big question.

My take is there is no fun, in the long run, in acting as if there is no tomorrow.  This applies all year long, not just during a hectic holiday season.  Being mindful of the beauty and joy of this, and every other, season is what it takes to truly appreciate what we have.  Eating mindfully allows us to truly savor the good food.  Being fully present, and not rushed or distracted, when with friends and family enhances the good feelings (practicing mindfulness also helps combat depression; see here).  On the other hand, neglecting yourself (eating and drinking too much and not exercising) leads to bad feelings and regrets.

Willpower is a controversial topic, but should not be.  We all have it in varying degrees, and there is a lot we can do to get the most good out of it.  See these previous posts for some ideas.  Mainly, treat your willpower and self-control as a valuable but limited resource.  Don’t expose yourself to extreme amounts of temptation (see this study).  Strive for balance in your life, during holidays and all the rest of the time.  Finally, I suggest, don’t define “fun” as a continuous orgy of indulgence.  What is your definition of “fun”?

Learning self-control and delay of gratification

May 22, 2009

New Yorker marshmallows

A now classic psychology experiment from the late 1960s demonstrated that four-year-old children who were able to delay the gratification of eating a marshmallow became more successful in later years than children who could not exercise as much self-control. In an update of the research on this topic, Jonah Lehrer (writing in The New Yorker recently) quotes the original researcher and many others discussing how we learn to control our brains when it comes to resisting temptation and applying ourselves to a task (such as controlling what we eat or exercising more).

The marshmallow researcher, Walter Mischel, says, “Once you realize that willpower is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.”

Teaching children (and adults) simple ways to master their thoughts and behavior (through “strategic allocation of attention”) may be a crucial ingredient in increasing success in many activities.  For example, the children who were successful in resisting the marshmallow temptation

distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street.” Their desire wasn’t defeated—it was merely forgotten. “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”

Mischel and other researchers are very interested in studying the people who have become “high-delaying adults” (exercising self-control) even though, as children, they failed the marshmallow test.

Some researchers (e.g., John Jonides at University of Michigan, and others) are focusing on the exact locations and functions in the brain associated with self-control and delay of gratification:

Yale University researchers found that delaying gratification involves an area of the brain, the anterior prefrontal cortex, that is known to be involved in abstract problem-solving and keeping track of goals.  … The brain scan findings from 103 subjects suggest that delaying gratification involves the ability to imagine a future event clearly, said Jeremy Gray, a Yale psychology professor and coauthor of the study in the September [2008] edition of the journal Psychological Science. You need “a sort of ‘far-sightedness,’ to put it in a single word,” he said. [reference]

Mischel, the original marshmallow researcher, adds:

The key to delaying gratification may lie in the ability to “cool the hot stimulus,” he said in a telephone interview.

Over and over, research is showing that the trick is to shift activity from “hot,” more primitive areas deep in the brain to “cool,” more rational areas mainly in the higher centers of the brain, he said.

There are many ways to cool a hot stimulus, said Mischel, who is president of the Association for Psychological Science. Say you are determined to resist the chocolate cake at a restaurant. You must distract yourself from the waiter’s dessert tray. You can also focus on long-term consequences and make them “hot” – by vividly imagining your future tummy and hip bulges – or think of the cake in the cooler abstract, as a thing that will make you fat and clog your arteries.

In the marshmallow test, he said, “the same child who can’t wait a minute if they’re thinking about how yummy and chewy the marshmallow is can wait for 20 minutes if they’re thinking of the marshmallow as being puffy like a cotton ball or like a cloud floating in the sky.” [reference]

A large-scale study is now underway, involving hundreds of schoolchildren in Philadelphia, Seattle, and New York City, to see if self-control skills can be taught.

More resources:

Nurture vs. nature? Experience vs. genes? How about “all of the above”?

November 14, 2008


As a psychiatrist (now happily retired) I have long been disgusted with my profession. When I started out in the 1970s, psychiatry was emerging from an era of mindless adherence to the doctrines of psychoanalysis and/or behaviorism (essentially the notion that our experience/environment dictates who we are and how we act). Then, after only a few years of very exciting and rich eclecticism, the pendulum got stuck at the other pole: mindless adherence to the doctrines of bio-medicine and/or pharmacology  (the belief that “genes” and various proteins and chemicals determine all that we are and do).  Many of us tried to restore balance by arguing that there is a rich and complex interaction among all of the various bio-psycho-social factors that influences who we are and how we behave. But the leaders of the profession (department chairs, academic gurus, the APA) were too blinded by the huge amounts of easy money from the pharmaceutical and insurance industries (both of which promote simplistic “biomedical” explanations) to pay attention.

Well, I am glad to see that finally some sanity is returning, not necessarily to psychiatry, but to medical science.  Two recent articles in the New York Times illustrate what I am talking about. They both report on exciting research trends that support the notion that experience and genes and a variety of poorly understood factors ALL INTERACT on a very basic level. Bio-psycho-social is now the wave of the future.

Here are some quotes from the 2 articles that may help explain what I am excited about:

Two scientists, drawing on their own powers of observation and a creative reading of recent genetic findings, have published a sweeping theory of brain development that would change the way mental disorders like autism and schizophrenia are understood.

… [E]xperts familiar with their theory say that the two scientists have, at minimum, infused the field with a shot of needed imagination and demonstrated the power of thinking outside the gene. For just as a gene can carry a mark from its parent of origin, so it can be imprinted by that parent’s own experience.

The study of such markers should have a “significant impact on our understanding of mental health conditions,” said Dr. Bhismadev Chakrabarti, of the Autism Research Center at the University of Cambridge, “as, in some ways, they represent the first environmental influence on the expression of the genes.” [see this article]


The gene … is in an identity crisis.

This crisis comes on the eve of the gene’s 100th birthday. The word was coined by the Danish geneticist Wilhelm Johanssen in 1909, to describe whatever it was that parents passed down to their offspring so that they developed the same traits. Johanssen, like other biologists of his generation, had no idea what that invisible factor was. But he thought it would be useful to have a way to describe it.

“The word ‘gene’ is completely free from any hypothesis,” Johanssen declared, calling it “a very applicable little word.” …

These new concepts [described in the body of the article] are moving the gene away from a physical snippet of DNA and back to a more abstract definition. “It’s almost a recapture of what the term was originally meant to convey,” Dr. Gingeras said. [see this article]

What does this have to do with health and fitness?  Everything. As I have argued elsewhere, we are not simply the end products of fixed-in-place genes that determine, for example, how much we weigh.  Nor are we defined only by our early childhood experience. It is way more complex, and there is much room for variation in our health and lifestyle. Now, with the new respect in medical science for complexity and subtlety, there may even be room for “willpower.”  Admittedly, that is stretching the point, but I firmly believe that there are far more ways to impact our personal destinies than my former colleagues in psychiatry have acknowledged.

What is the role of willpower in losing weight?

May 23, 2008

Perhaps no single issue in the ongoing debate about how best to maintain a desired weight, and generally live a healthy life, is more controversial than the role of willpower. Many “experts” avoid the term altogether, and assure their readers and potential customers that willpower is an evil concept which blames the victim of unhealthy habits. I was very surprised, therefore, when I saw this article on willpower in the New York Times (“Tighten Your Belt, Strengthen Your Mind” April 2, 2008). Could it be there is something positive to say about the concept?

Here is an excerpt from Weight Managemet for Your Life regarding the role of willpower in weight management (pp. 26-27):

While it is beyond the scope of this book to discuss the many meanings over time of the terms “free will” and “intentionality,” and whether human beings actually possess any, I believe we are able to exercise freedom of choice and, in varying degrees, make unique decisions and valid commitments. Neuroimaging studies (“functional MRIs” which show brain activity as we perform tasks) demonstrate that conscious decision-making accounts for from twenty to fifty percent of brain activity, depending on the novelty and complexity of the task. Many of our everyday decisions are made in the pre-conscious mind – outside our immediate awareness, but readily brought into awareness. Thus, our willpower (also referred to as conscious volition, intentionality, or self-control) is a force we can call upon when necessary, and with some degree of freedom.

When people hear the term “willpower,” many envision Sisyphus, from Greek mythology, who was condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a rock up a mountain, only to see it roll down again. That is because we usually only pay attention to our own willpower when we are having problems applying it to a difficult task. The majority of the time we use it without even being aware of it, such as when we decide to watch TV instead of reading, or vice versa. In the following sections, I will suggest ways to make willpower more accessible in order to increase your effectiveness in getting what you really want out of life.